India elections: What next for Rahul Gandhi and his Congress?

Questions being raised about the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi family scion as his party faces second straight defeat.

    Rahul Gandhi addresses a news conference in New Delhi after his party's stunning defeat [Reuters]
    Rahul Gandhi addresses a news conference in New Delhi after his party's stunning defeat [Reuters]

    A second straight election drubbing for opposition Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has raised serious questions about his leadership and cast a damaging shadow over one of the world's most prominent political dynasties.

    Gandhi, who even lost the family constituency seat of Amethi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, will have to face the music at a meeting of party leaders in coming days.

    Gandhi lost Amethi, a seat he represented since 2004 and which was a Congress stronghold since the 1960s, to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) Smriti Irani - the most stunning upset in the Indian election, which saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi storm back to power.

    The election results made grim reading for Congress barons who have relied for generations on the talismanic Nehru-Gandhi name - which rivals the Kennedy clan in the United States and the Bhuttos in Pakistan - to provide electoral success.

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    The Congress won 52 seats in India's lower house of parliament, barely improving the historic low of 44 it had won in Modi's last landslide in 2014. The party failed to get any seat in 13 of the country's 29 states.

    When asked about responsibility for the loss, Gandhi told a press conference late on Thursday: "This is between my party and me, between me and the Congress Working Committee."

    Party spokesmen have insisted the 48-year-old son, grandson and great-grandson of different Indian prime ministers would not resign and that strategy was to blame for the defeat.

    "We have to go back to the drawing board," Congress spokesman Salman Soz told AFP news agency.

    Congress in denial?

    But experts say the party and its ruling family are in denial.

    "The Congress leadership has clearly failed. It is a discredited and bankrupt leadership," Kanchan Gupta, a politics expert at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think-tank, told AFP.

    Congress has been a virtual one-family party for the last century. India has been mesmerised by the twists and turns of its successes and frequent tragedies.

    Pro-independence leader Motilal Nehru served as party president twice between 1919 and 1929.

    His son Jawaharlal Nehru became India's first prime minister after independence in 1947, ruling until his death in 1964. His daughter Indira Gandhi and then her son Rajiv Gandhi - Rahul's father - followed as premiers. Both were assassinated in office.

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    Rajiv's widow Sonia Gandhi won two elections as the party leader but did not become prime minister, fearing her Italian origins would lead to a backlash.

    Party fortunes had dwindled since she started to hand the reins to son Rahul ahead of the 2014 vote and as Modi turned the BJP into a formidable vote machine, seizing on corruption scandals that hit the Congress.

    The Gandhi scion failed this time to connect with voters in the way that Modi did, critics said. The Nehru-Gandhi name that was once Congress's biggest asset is now a liability.

    The Congress "campaign was a disaster and now their very existence is under question", Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Caravan magazine, told AFP. "The more it staggers, the more it helps the BJP."

    Modi made hay mocking the Congress president's lineage, calling him "shehzada" (prince), which contrasted sharply with his humble origins as a tea seller. Modi also attacked Rajiv Gandhi, describing him as India's most corrupt prime minister.

    The use of Rahul's sister Priyanka on the campaign trail did not galvanise Congress votes as expected.

    "Rahul's party may have mobilised crowds for him but he simply couldn't connect," said Gupta, adding that the Congress's age-old policy of offering welfare handouts to the poor no longer resonates with an "aspirational India".

    What next?

    "It is pretty much over to the Congress to decide if it wants to shield Rahul Gandhi, like they have done other times," said Nistula Hebbar, political editor of The Hindu newspaper.

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    "If they do, the going gets much tougher for the party to revive from its present situation," she told AFP.

    Several big-hitting Indian politicians have defected from Congress over the years because of the Gandhis' refusal to give up power.

    Sharad Pawar, who formed the Nationalist Congress Party, and Trinamool Congress Party leader Mamata Banerjee, quit long before Rahul took charge.

    Commentators say there is young talent in the party that should be promoted but they cannot see the Gandhis giving up power.

    "It will be very tough for the Gandhis to rebuild from here on," said Hemant Kumar Malviya, an associate professor of political science at the Banaras Hindu University.

    "But I don't think it's the end of the road for them," he added.

    SOURCE: AFP news agency